There is an estimated 13 percent of the University of Colorado at Boulder undergraduate population that is in some way Jewish. Yet, until recent years there has been little Jewish community and education on campus.
In the past few years, though, there has been a rise of interest in Judaism on campus, both religiously and educationally. Student groups Hillel and Chabad have seen jump in attendance to events. Also, the Program in Jewish Studies was started on campus in 2007.
In the second least religious city in the United States, according to a recent Gallup poll, Chabad is only $2 to 300,000 away from being able to renovate and complete a Jewish dorm.
”The big deal is that there were always Jews here, just no Jewish life,” said Rabbi Wilhelm, that is, until now.
Program in Jewish Studies: Teaching what students want to learn
When the Program in Jewish Studies was created in 2007, there were just 12 students enrolled in the certificate program. Although it seems small, this was a huge step for the program.
The program was the brainchild of former professor Thomas Hollweck, of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures. In 2004, Hollweck successfully got a Hebrew instructor, Zilla Goodman, into the department.
When the Program in Jewish Studies started it had limited class offerings, with only three to five classes per semester. This number has grown to 20 to 25 classes per semester. Jamie Polliard, the assistant director of the Program in Jewish Studies, hired in 2008, said this is due to student interest in learning about the Holocaust and about the conflict in the Middle East.
“I believe in the power of education,” said Polliard.
Seeing students become excited about what their professors are teaching inspires Polliard every day, she said.
There is a “stereotype about Jewish identity and where they come from,” said Polliard and this program helps remove that idea from the community.
With 750 to 1,000 students being reached per semester, one of the program’s goals is to maintain a diverse Jewish and non-Jewish population in the classes. This has not been a problem yet, with most classes reaching capacity.
In the spring semester of 2012 CU regents approved a major and two minors within the Program in Jewish Studies. That spring, six students graduated with a major in Jewish Studies. Polliard notes that this meant these students had made the commitment for four years, before the degree program even existed.
Although it has grown significantly, Polliard noted that the program still has many goals and plans to expand in the future. They are looking to stabilize the faculty, and class offerings, with the creation a tenure track line.
They are working with the Leeds Business School to create a class about Jewish business ethics, along with many more opportunities for a variety of majors to gain from the Program in Jewish Studies.
Now there are currently 10 students working towards a degree in Jewish Studies, and 16 students with declared minors.
Chabad: Creating future communities
Visiting Boulder, on a cold and cloudy day, for the first time in 2005, Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm was told that there were no Jews on CU Boulder’s campus.
“I never heard of Boulder,” said Wilhelm.
So when he and his family moved to Boulder in August 2005 and opened up the campus’s first Chabad house, Wilhelm was unsure of its possible success.
Being a Chabad rabbi on campus is difficult due to the instability and always changing student population.
“I believe that this is the age that kids are making decisions one way or another,” said Wilhelm, about the importance of having an active Jewish community.
The first Shabbat dinner Wilhelm held only had six students in attendance, only reaching 20 to 30 people by the end of the year.
Wilhelm has two long-term goals for Chabad on campus. Becoming financially stable, by switching fundraising over from parents of students to new alumni, is most important.
We want to “create an environment outside of Chabad, outside of programming,” said Wilhelm, on the importance of creating a Jewish dorm.
“The way CU is different from other universities is that if you don’t go Chabad or Hillel you go to a fraternity and participate in something,” said Wilhelm.
This is the type of community he is trying to create on campus.
Attendance at shabbat dinners has grown tremendously since Chabad’s beginning. There are now 50 to 120 students attending each week, although Wilhelm joked that this is dependent on the ski season.
Hillel: A community of individuality
There has been a Hillel house on campus for over 30 years. It has had its ups and downs over the years. Wilhelm remembers Hillel to be tiny, with Shabbat dinners only once every few weeks, when he arrived at CU in 2005.
In July 2009, Hanan Nayberg become the director of the Boulder Hillel. Coming from Tulane University, called “Jewlane” by Nayberg, he found the Jewish community on campus to be proportionately small.
At Hillel’s first Shabbat dinner in the fall, only 15 to 25 students showed up. Not many students even knew that Hillel existed on campus.
With a big inactive community, Nayberg said that students were looking for more. In Nayberg’s four years so far, he has grown that number up to 25 to 50 students weekly.
Hillel is an “amazing microcosm for the Jewish community as a whole,” Nayberg said on why it is important to have an active Hillel on campus.
Like the other organizations on campus, Hillel also holds many ways to grow and adapt to the Jewish community and interest on campus.
“We will have to re-imagine ourselves to really make sure we are serving the Jewish community,” said Nayberg.
Nayberg sees the future of Hillel at CU to be less about a building with the Hillel name on it, but more about an active, fluid community, that will exist on campus. In doing that Hillel is striving to make sure every Jewish student understand that their journey its own individual thing.
Not all Jewish students will get the same thing from being Jewish, Nayberg notes, and that is important for the continuation of Hillel on campus.
Future growth and continuation
Although the Program in Jewish Studies, Hillel, and Chabad serve different functions, with different goals, on campus, they would all fail without the same thing. Students. Students who are excited to participate and learn.
They are the “most accepting people I’ve ever met,” said Grisha Bornsztein, a 20-year-old junior economics major, and regular attendee at Hillel, about the Jewish community on campus.
Polliard noted that she has encountered several students who chose to stay instate, and attend CU, because of the newly created program.
These three programs have grown drastically in the last few years, not just because of the increased student excitement and involvement, but also because of the great leadership.
Although Wilhelm finds his job to be often difficult, he always finds it “very rewarding on a personal level.”
“I think more people should identify their Judaism,” said Kevin McKenzie, a freshman who attends both Hillel and Chabad.